Just up the hill from the Emirates Stadium of Arsenal Football Club in north London is Hornsey Rise. Nothing in this cramped inner-city setting is much older than a red-brick crescent of terraced homes. I hover outside a front door, double-checking the number, reluctant to knock and ask out loud: ‘Is this the Introduction to Permaculture course?’ The place seems just too unlikely.
After all, what little I’ve so far read about permaculture suggests it has to do with food. The way we currently make it consumes about a third of all the vanishing, non-renewable energy we use. Something like a third of the food produced for the people of rich countries never even reaches their mouths, but goes to waste. Worldwide, maybe a third of humanity still can’t be entirely sure where their next mouthful is coming from. Food surely matters more than most things.
But, with the best will in the world, not much food will ever come from Hornsey Rise – unless, that is, there’s a furtive plan to dig up the turf of the Emirates Stadium.
I’m rescued on the doorstep by the arrival on her bike of Nicole, a local doctor, who helps to organize NatureWiseˆ1ˆ, which is running the course. We walk through the house and out into an extraordinary space: an orchard of pear and apple trees tossed by a biting breeze; ponds, paths, cultivated beds, delicate blooms glowing in early-spring sunlight; quietness; hushed voices; a distant pneumatic drill. Marianne, whose home this is, explains that this land was once given over to orchards and greenhouses supplying food to the city below. It has survived the invasion of housing thanks largely to a quirk of ancient legislation.
In this secret garden there’s a wooden chalet where my fellow students are huddled. The course is full – permaculture must be catching on.
Formal introductions are made by pairing us off with our neighbour. Next to me is Kat, the NatureWise ‘fixer’ for the course; a ‘people person’, her parents ‘old hippies’ familiar with the India trail and recycling. Kat trained as a graphic designer but grew tired of the office and the mouse, started ‘designing with plants’ and making documentary films. When she introduces me to the group and explains what I’m up to, I detect no obvious signs of dismay and decide to leave it at that.
I’d say we are on average less than half my age: a solemn German woman; a Spanish therapist; an Australian chef and her florist partner; a Polish waitress; a family doctor and her American partner; a South African who claims to have lived for some time in a mud hut. Only a schoolteacher, an experimental musician, a glove-puppeteer and myself are natives.
Our teachers are Mark, who knows a lot about farming but lives in west London, and Graham, who lives on the East Anglian coast. He is introduced by Mark as having once been militantly ‘anti almost anything you care to name’. I empathize with him.
We set to work. What, then, is permaculture? Well, suggests Mark, from every 100 people who are in a position to say, you’re likely to get 100 different answers. Not unlike ‘economists’, then? But people rarely refer to themselves as ‘permaculturalists’. It is a way of observing, thinking, designing. It values common sense and ingenuity. You don’t need land or money – almost anyone can apply it almost anywhere, beginning with whatever’s in front of your nose.
Unlike economics, however, the very first step is towards ‘ethics’. A recurrent theme, this, and one I’m told makes permaculture different. Earth Care. People Care. Fair Shares. Motherhood and apple pie? Well, hardly. I’ll leave Maddy Harland of Permaculture Magazine to outline the ethics for you, which she does on page 6.
The next step is towards ‘principles’:
- Work with nature, not against it: use it as a teacher.
- Everything in nature ‘gardens’ – for example, deer in a forest cultivate edible shoots by ‘pruning’ them back.
- Minimum effort for maximum output – perfected, apparently, by a ‘do-nothing’ farmer in Japan.
- The problem is the solution – for example, thistles on grazing land, which livestock don’t eat, benefit the fertility and condition of the soil.
- There’s no theoretical limit to yield – only the imagination of the designer.
- Multiple elements and multiple functions – something as simple as a greenhouse is useful not just for propagating plants: it extends the growing season, collects rainfall from the roof, reflects sunlight...
Put together the ethics with the principles, suggests Mark, and you have permaculture.
The real charm of the thing for me, however, is that you start by doing nothing at all. We repair individually to the garden to observe.
Only two things strike me. One is an old wooden board just in front of me, which says ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’. The other is that I can identify scarcely any of the plant species around me. As a child, I lived in the countryside and would probably at that time have been able to do better. Have I forgotten more than I have learned in the years since then?
Ethics, principles – and now ‘process’ or ‘design’. Permaculture employs a bewildering variety of methods. We’re given SADIM – Survey, Assess, Design, Implement, Maintain – as an example. In a way, the ‘perma’ and the ‘culture’ are reversed. Because you want to arrive somewhere permanent or sustainable, you begin by understanding the boundaries, resources, possibilities (the culture) of where you are now. Once you’ve been through everything else and get to ‘Maintain’, you have to include ‘Reassess’ and ‘Redesign’, to keep things sustainable. So you never really stop. Well, neither does nature.
We look at ‘Zone Sectors’. Roughly speaking, they are as follows:
- Zone 0 is your house
- Zone I is your garden or immediate outside space, which gets most of your attention
- Zone II is orchards or (in British cities) ‘allotments’
- Zone III is farmland
- Zone IV is rough grazing and woodland
- Zone V is wilderness
These zones are defined by the relationship between human energy and the land. The point is, by intelligent design, to make the most of human energy, minimizing the drudgery associated with feudal forms of peasant agriculture – to create an Edible Earth.
‘Sectoring’ includes outside influences: wind, sunshine, flows of water, pollution, neighbours, views. Then comes ‘elevation planning’; where to place things on the form of the land. All of these interact to produce, in my case, befuddlement of mind.
Oh dear! Why are things never quite so simple as they look at first glance? Well, no-one ever suggested the search wouldn’t be a challenge – even if, in the end, things turn out to be quite plain after all.
We try using cushions as hills; coloured fabrics laid over them to denote water, pasture, forest or wilderness; cards for houses, barns, ponds or greenhouses; pieces of string to define our ‘zones’. In small groups we are given a notional plot of land with brambles, car tyres, bits of wood and an old lawnmower to work with. It all goes a bit awry. Three of us who each grew up on different continents cannot even settle on the trajectory of the sun.
But we start to get the general idea. And, at the end of two days, we have planted onions, sown tomato seeds, dug trenches for beans and put down compost – in inner-city London. We have watched one video about the late Robert Hart’s celebrated ‘forest garden’ on the Welsh borders (inspired by Gandhi, Japanese horticulture, a disabled brother and social justice); another about a couple with a tiny space in suburbia who harvest from it more than 100 kilos of produce every year, giving just two hours’ attention to it each week. We have compared and contrasted a packet of corporate tea, a packet of fair trade tea and a pot of lemon balm (usually considered a weed, it makes a refreshing infusion) – sceptical concerns about the fair trade tea are put to rest by Marianne, who knows the producers in India personally. We have walked down the hill to the playground of a local nursery school, now transformed into a forest garden.
Most of us seem to have been fired up to learn a good deal more about permaculture. Time to see what happens if I try to apply the principles to the way I live my own life, starting with Zone 0 and working my way gradually into the wilderness. •
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